On Chasing the Right “Zero”

Yesterday, Merlin Mann shared his most recent thinking on ‘Inbox Zero’. You should read the whole post, but I wanted to share this bit in particular…

Put to best use, Inbox Zero is merely a philosophical practice of learning to be parsimonious about which and how many inputs we allow into into our lives—and, then, to responsibly but mindfully tend to those inputs in a way that is never allowed to hinder our personal commitment to doing the work that really matters to us.

Learning to "tend" (manage) multiple "inputs" (inboxes) effectively is important. However, it should not become "the work". Anything that vies for your attention is an inbox: RSS, Email, your todo list, Twitter. With so many inputs it is not hard to see why the idea of ‘Inbox Zero’ captures people’s imaginations. It is a goal and a tangible one. However, the truth, as Merlin so eloquently explains, is not so rosy. The time and attention that is often given to achieving such a goal directly reduces the time and attention given to the things that matter.

I have been guilty of tweeting with glee when I have emptied my email inbox or read through every item in my read later list. However, in listening to Merlin talk about time and attention on his podcast Back to Work, I have come to understand that there is a better way to achieve ‘Inbox Zero’. I have learned to live with keeping a few items in my email inbox; I have learned not to fret as I keep adding items to my read later list; and I have also learned not to get stressed out if I have to keep putting off a job in my todo list.

You see, most importantly I have learned to "tend" my inboxes less frequently. I think it still panics some of my colleagues when they ask me "Have I read this or that email yet?", and I answer "No", explaining that my email has been closed while I have been teaching. During my lessons I am giving "zero" attention to my inboxes and 100% attention to my students. After all, that is why I am there right? So, why would I put my time and attention elsewhere?

To do "the work that really matters" you have to find focus. You have to give it the time and attention it deserves. So, please close your other inboxes and take a moment to read Merlin’s post… there is much to be gleaned from his words.